Reanimating Detroit

A new book offers some decent ideas for revitalizing the Motor City—but it doesn't go far enough.


Detroit: Three Pathways to Revitalization, by Lewis D. Solomon, Transaction, 147 pages, $34.95.

The metropolis of Detroit has received considerable attention lately, little of it sanguine. A sampling of recent titles includes Escape from Detroit, Lost Detroit, What Doomed Detroit, Detroit Disassembled, and Detroit Breakdown. The once mighty Motor City has seen its population tumble from 1.86 million in 1950 to an estimated 700,000 today. Lewis Solomon—author of another recent book, Detroit: Three Pathways to Revitalization—estimates that 500,000 Detroiters inhabit the lower socioeconomic strata.

Solomon, a research professor at George Washington University Law School, aims to recognize and catalog "Detroit's challenges." The three pathways he endorses are a rightsized municipal government, a resurgent private sector fueling economic growth, and a grassroots alternative economy built on "community-oriented entities" such as cooperatives and small-scale entrepreneurship.

But before he gets to his solutions, he outlines the city's problems. His first chapter's candid recital of the challenges facing Detroit is enough to terminally discourage the most sanguine reader.

Precipitous population losses. A shrinking tax base. Too few jobs. Impoverished families. An uneducated, unskilled workforce—47 percent of the city's adults lack basic reading and writing skills, even though about half of those 47 percent have high school diplomas. White and then middle-class black flight to the suburbs, beginning with the 1967 race riots. Unsalable homes in fractured neighborhoods, with 79,725 vacant buildings and over 100,000 parcels of vacant land. Deserted office buildings and destroyed factories. Crumbling infrastructure. Shrinking and unreliable public services. Wretched ghetto schools. Periodically looted public pension funds that have become an "enormous and crushing" cost burden. A municipal debt of 32 times the city's total net assets. Despair, drugs, crime, trash, and graffiti.

At this point, the reader might well decide to move on to another book. But Solomon follows quickly with a second chapter highlighting the city's assets. These include good air service, fine downtown hotel accommodations and restaurants, modern football and baseball stadia, and a riverwalk that "serves as a magnet for those who want to stroll, jog, or bike in a park setting." Or, possibly, to run for their lives.

There are also reputable colleges, medical centers, the Detroit Institute for the Arts, and yes, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. As Reason's Nick Gillespie once observed, "If the top three answers to the question "What's great about the place?" include 'a world class symphony orchestra,' you're smack dab in the middle of a current or future ghost town."

But Solomon soldiers on, and it's worth staying with him as he seeks evidence for the maxim "in disintegration lies opportunity." He presents a detailed account of the various plans presented by a procession of public and civic entities to address the city's financial stability, launch a "Detroit Works Project," begin a "New Economic Initiative," and so on. While each of these has done some good work, none has been able to enlist the degenerate mechanism of municipal government in service of a promising agenda.

Mayor Dave Bing, a Hall of Fame basketball legend elected in 2009 to succeed 24 years of thoroughly irresponsible, incompetent, and corrupt municipal leadership, tackled the task with courage and enthusiasm. His guiding strategy was to "rightsize" the city—not the city government, as Solomon recommends, but the actual city itself. Bing set out to concentrate its shrunken population in a smaller number of viable neighborhoods, while demolishing enough of the remaining area to create an "urban prairie" of grasslands, reforestation, and rainwater retention ponds. Those in the disfavored areas would face reduced city services (no street lights, etc.) until they gave in and moved.

The mayor's hope was that the surviving viable neighborhoods would attract middle-class urban pioneers. He acknowledged that public safety (police and fire) was the top priority, followed by a productive school system. Despite his good intentions, Bing's approval rating sank as low as 14 percent; he fled the office in 2013. By that time the city was in the hands of emergency manager Kevyn Orr, who in February 2014 (after this book had gone to press) filed the nation's largest-ever municipal bankruptcy petition.

Solomon devotes a revealing chapter to Detroit's wretchedly unproductive public school system. The statewide Education Achievement System, launched in 2012, targets six city high schools and nine elementary schools, together having 10,000 students. The plan also created nine "quasi-charter schools" with 2,800 students in which the principal, not the school board bureaucracy, in charge. There is no mention, however, of creating real charter schools or, better yet, paying pupils' tuition for the public or private school or program of their choice.

One bright spot in this recitation comes when Solomon discusses the private sector's civic leadership. A host of corporations seem committed to making central Detroit a tech services enterprise zone. The leader and visionary of this strategy has been Daniel Gilbert, CEO of the nation's leading online mortgage lender, Quicken Loans. Aided by $47 million in state tax credits and the availability of bargain-basement office space, Gilbert and his affiliated firms have brought 6,000 jobs to central Detroit.

The trouble is that almost all of those jobs have gone to non-residents of the city. That's because the jobs require skills and work habits in short supply among the 174,000 Detroiters aged 17 to 64.

And therein lies the most wrenching dilemma of revitalizing Detroit. Those low-skill working-age people, most of them failed by the government school system, somehow have to make themselves employable in a new economy or else choose between perpetually gaming the welfare system or migrating from the city they have known.

Solomon is not unaware of this dilemma. He considers the potential of the "creative class" of artsy types to pump new life into sinking neighborhoods, but he realistically stops well short of seeing it as a major contributor to revitalization. Similarly, he sees community gardens on vacant land, "small worker owned enterprises," other "decentralized, smaller scale institutions," and even a local currency system as means for rebuilding a lost sense of community. He offers "low odds" for the success of any kind of metropolitan planning but he concludes that urban agriculture, leading to a "more self-sufficient, parallel political economy, could serve as a major engine for Detroit's revitalization." Seems unlikely.

Not that Solomon's third pathway isn't an attractive vision. It is. Anything that tends to recreate a functioning civil society of shared values, mutual concern, and self-help is a worthy goal. The hard part is creating the substrate of earned life support of the citizens, without which their citizenship is often reduced to continually voting for subsidies.

What is disappointing about Solomon's prescriptions for reversing Detroit's plight is his apparent unfamiliarity with the scholarship and practice of undoing the malign results of Too Much Bad Government. For instance, the Reason Foundation, which publishes this magazine, has a Local Government Center that has advocated urban revival strategies for four decades, all based on the idea of reducing suffocating government regulation, scrapping crony deal-making, letting markets begin to work, and giving empowered residents realistic opportunities to improve their city and their prospects.

A real revitalization plan might entail turning Detroit into a contract city that outsources its activities to private enterprise—or, alternately, decentralizing city governance to semi-autonomous neighborhood assemblies. It could mean giving every kid a voucher for any of a wide range of educational programs, public or private. Selling off municipal assets such as the city-owned art collection and Detroit Power and Light. Deregulating enterprises large and small, from manufacturing and department stores to street vendors and jitneys. Replacing the byzantine zoning bylaws with a Houston-style set of covenants and performance standards. Converting city worker pension plans to defined contribution plans, thus preventing the city's crushing burden of pension debt from becoming still worse. Establishing a strong policy in support of almost any kind of civil society activity, even those that threaten the livelihoods of politicians and municipal unions. Solomon does discuss privatization of DP&L and the municipal airport, but his book lacks enthusiasm for the more aggressive libertarian agenda.

The foregoing is just a quick sampler. If you reject such ideas, your two alternatives are to be a perpetual subsidy-supported metropolis constantly succumbing to decay or a gated urban gentry zone surrounded by desolation and a sullen, unproductive, excluded population.

Solomon's slim volume is a concise and well-documented assessment of Detroit's recent history and its problems and assets. There's nothing wrong with its three "pathways to revitalization." What it lacks is a grander vision of freedom and opportunity.

Contributing Editor John McClaughry, former president of the Ethan Allen Institute, is the author of "Recycling Declining Neighborhoods: Give the People a Chance" (Urban Lawyer, Spring 1978). As a Detroit native, he is concerned about being recalled.

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  1. Does it involve tactical nuclear strikes? If not, I am afraid nothing else is left.

  2. It sounds like Detroit would be aces if not for its people.

    1. It’s the people, it’s the lack of people – either way, that place is fucked.

    2. I think that’s true of many failing cities. As long as people think they can get by on being the aristocracy of pull, they have no incentive to do anything else.

  3. Was downtown the last two days for work. My takeaway was that the biker-cops have bikes branded “Smith and Wesson”. I didn’t know S&W were in the bike bidness, but one of those would look pretty cool in my garage.

    Otherwise, same old downtown Detroit – not very big, some nice spots, lots of shitty spots close by, and the neighborhoods are rofe with abandoned homes. The horror….the horror…


    Two years ago, Fresh Corner Cafe, a Detroit company based in the Green Garage that makes healthy, affordable wraps and salads and sells them in places where access to fresh food is limited, was experiencing financial difficulties when sales from corner stores and gas stations alone could not sustain the business.

    “That felt like a defeat,” says Fresh Corner co-owner Noam Kimmelman. “[But after examining the numbers,] I realized it was costing us just 25 cents per unit of salad that we added to each store. Show me one nonprofit vendor in the world that’s delivering salads for 25 cents per person. When you look at it that way, it’s a success.”

    But are you still going out of business? And is he talking $0.25 per unit of salad? Dude, head to any auction where farmers take their surplus. But I guess those are for-profit farms and don’t count in his calculation.

    Amy Peterson, co-founder of Rebel Nell, a Detroit company that employs women hired from shelters to make graffiti-inspired jewelry, echoes Kimmelman’s sentiment.

    I tip my monacle to this fine capitalist for innovating in the area of labor supply.

  5. Here is an idea – abolish the city income tax

    1. Also eliminate the Michigan income tax as well. Give tax incentives to companies to hold their businesses in Detroit. Have the employees take reading and basic math skill tests, and if they don’t measure up, have them take mandatory remedial math and grammer skill tests after work. No pensions, just 401(k) for all government workers and all employees, government and private provide their own health care.
      I would also recommend an audit of where all the money that Wayne County and the City of Detroit received and where it went. If there is any financial malfeascence (SP), then the accused should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.
      Socialist ideas, corruption and gross incompetence destroyed the once great city of Detroit. Only honest capitalism can save it now.

  6. The fundamental problem with Detroit is it that it’s still ‘full’ of mostly poor people. These are folks who don’t/can’t pay their property taxes or water bill and drive without insurance (sending car insurance rates for other residents through the roof). The poor majority generate virtually no tax revenue to support the (increasingly expensive) services their neighborhoods require. Neighborhoods are becoming ever more sparse, which means the per-capita costs of street repair, utilities, police and fire, continue to escalate.

    The latest thing is an ambitious plan to demolish all the abandoned 85,000 blighted structures in the city. But nobody seems to want to recognize that it’s a moving target — how many additional structures will be abandoned in the 5 years they expect to take demolishing the existing blighted properties?

    Bottom line is it still looks like a death spiral to me. Downtown may do OK if it can be financially insulated from the rest of the city, but the remainder looks about as doomed as ever.

    1. The fundamental problem with Detroit is the city is taxing property beyond its economic value.

      Apologies for no link, but I saw something a week or so ago that compared Google and Bing photos of addresses around Detoit.

      The Bing photos were a couple years later than the Google photos. So you could see a demolished house in the Google photo and then two years later you’d see the 2 houses NEXT to that house were gone, too.

      Demolishing the houses is fine, but it won’t stop anything. The property taxes are what’s killing Detroit. Why pay $6K a year on a house valued by the city at $50K?

      Nobody will buy the house with that kind of tax burden, so the value is essentially $0. But the taxes are still $6K. Abandoning the house is the intelligent economic choice.

        1. A pertinent NYT article from yesterday.


  7. Never forget that punk-thug Coleman Young: An evil leftist that burns in Hell with the likes of Chavez, Stalin and Ho Chi Minh.

    1. Well said. Actually, I have more respect for the three you mentioned. At least they did not pretend to try to help others. You knew they were totalitarians and were going to destroy you and your family if you got in their way.
      With apologies to Jesus of Nazareth, the love of money is not the root of all evil. The root of all evil is altruism.

  8. An uneducated, unskilled workforce

    Forget about City Hall, what about the residents of Detroit?

  9. [47 percent of the city’s adults lack basic reading and writing skills, even though about half of those 47 percent have high school diplomas]

    Amazing that you don’t see more in the teaching “profession” walking about sporting bags over their heads.

  10. 1920-60, there was a large exodus of AAs from the rural South, to midwestern and northeastern cities. These AAs found work for a while, but starting in the 1970s jobs became harder to find, and welfare became more generous. The result was the emergence of a large urban underclass. The quality of urban public schools declined. Drug use and crime soared. (In the 1950s, it was usually safe for a white male to walk the streets of a ghetto.) Welfare dependency became a lifestyle for women; crime became a way of life for men. If they lived to 45, they were usually sufficiently broken to qualify for Disability or SSI. 1950-75, white flight was rampant. Eventually there was middle class black flight as well.

    Zoning, natural boundaries, and so on put limits on this urban form of cancer. But in a few USA cities, this underclass death spiral came to consume the entire city: East St. Louis, Gary IN, Flint MI, Camden NJ. In California, this underclass lifestyle has eaten up most of Visalia and Merced, and a lot of Stockton and Oakland.

    Both one failed city stands head and shoulders over the rest: Detroit. At least 80% of that city’s land area is either a slum, or is vacant land that turned slummy 30-50 years ago and has since been bulldozed.

    1. Half of Detroit property tax bills go unpaid. The bills are calculated on assessments carried over from the 1980s and 90s. Rather than pay those bills, people simply abandon their properties.

      I suspect that a large majority of Detroit’s middle class jobs are with the city, county and school board. There is almost no car manufacturing still taking place within Detroit’s city limits. We all have to accept that there no longer is an economic reason to concentrate American auto making in SE Michigan.

      Vacant structures should be razed. Thinly populated neighbourhoods should be condemned, razed and deserviced. The state should assume control of the parts of Detroit where no one lives any more. But there is no hope for turning Detroit around until its crime rate becomes as low as Chicago’s. This may require that the existing underclass men grow old and die. No one can predict when Detroit’s renaissance will begin, nor what form it will take.

  11. I’ve had a dream of using a huge empty section of Detroit for a massive airsoft game. The combination of empty buildings, dilapidated streets, and the feeling of utter loneliness and despair would make for a perfect post-apocalyptic themed game.

    I just can’t imagine the kind of hoops I would have to jump through to make it happen. I figure the city council would probably have me beaten and jailed for even considering bringing business into the city. Not to mention the Fifty Thousand Dollars worth of licensing and regulation fees I would be forced to pay.

    Sorry to say, but Detroit can go fuck itself.

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